Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Policing the Police

From the Center for Justice Newsletter, Justice Calling:

There is an age-old adage that you can't fight City Hall.

But the question that Liz Moore, Shonto Pete, Marianne Torres, Deb Abrahamson, Teresa Torosian, Sandy Williams and others have been putting to the test this summer is whether you can have a meaningful conversation with City Hall.

The dialogue they and other community leaders (representing a wide variety of organizations) have been trying to have concerns civilian police oversight. Since at least 1992, public opinion in Spokane has been solidly in favor of having independent oversight over the Spokane Police Department when it comes to investigating complaints of excessive force. Given the troubling collapse of public confidence in the Spokane Police Department, it doesn't seem like that much to ask. Boise, Idaho, has had an independent police ombudsman for ten years and it has clearly accomplished the main objectives of improving police practices and restoring public trust in the police. In Boise.

Spokane? That's a whole other story. Actually, it's several stories and more than one is required to describe what amounts to a simmering impasse. If city leaders thought they'd placated public mistrust and anger by passing a watered-down ombudsman ordinance last fall, they badly miscalculated. And it didn't help matters when, in mid-June, city attorneys filed a response in the Otto Zehm civil case (the Center represents the Zehm family) asserting that Otto was responsible for his own death in the hands of Spokane police. Just three days later, though, the Justice Department announced that it had criminally indicted Spokane police officer Karl Thompson, Jr., alleging he assaulted Zehm and then made false statements to investigators about the incident.

You can read our account of the Thompson indictment and related developments in the Zehm case here . You can read a related sidebar feature on KREM-2 journalist Randy Shaw's revealing interview with Assistant City Attorney Rocky Trepiedi here .

You can watch the Center's Chief Catalyst, Breean Beggs, offer his frank assessment of the Zehm case and the city's responses to the indictment and related events here .

Our account of the strange and heated June 29th City Council meeting on the Ombudsman controversy and the conditional appointment of Ombudsman Timothy Burns can be read here .

In a case that has similarities to that of Otto Zehm, the Center, at the end of June, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of the family of Trent Yohe, who died after an altercation with Spokane County Sheriff's deputies two years ago in the Spokane Valley. You can read about the case here .

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